Keeping the focus will be tough

It's often forgot about that Nebraska and Penn State will square off on Saturday. Big Ten coaches across the league say PSU players most keep focus in these tough times.

Michigan State and Minnesota have coped with their head coaches' health scares the last two years, and Ohio State has had to deal with the fallout of NCAA rules violations.

Those situations are far different than the distraction 12th-ranked Penn State faces this week as it prepares for a home game against No. 19 Nebraska. Penn State and its veteran coach, Joe Paterno, are under fire after allegations of sex abuse involving children by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

The athletic director and a school vice president already have lost their jobs, and there are calls for the removal of Paterno and the school president.

With all the discord, the players are being asked to continue with a season that, on the field, has exceeded expectations. If Penn State wins out, they go to the Rose Bowl.

"Usually you go one way or the other under adverse situations," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said Tuesday. "You're either going to thrive in it and fight back or you're going to let it take you over."

Dantonio and his counterparts on the Big Ten's weekly teleconference with reporters steered clear of commenting on the specifics of the Penn State situation. Several coaches expressed support for Paterno, who did not participate in the call.

Potential distractions are always a concern as teams prepare for games. Players get hurt, get arrested, decide to transfer. Sometimes there are tragedies, too; a year ago, Notre Dame student videographer Declan Sullivan was killed in an accident when the scissor lift he was on toppled over during practice.

Dantonio suffered a mild heart attack after a dramatic win over Notre Dame last year, and his Spartans went on to win a share of the Big Ten championship. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill has missed time this season because of seizures, and the Gophers have struggled, though not necessarily because of his absences.

Coaches said a team in turmoil must close ranks.

"If you've got great assistants and they have great relationships with their players, that's the first step," Dantonio said. "If that's happening, they're able to calm the storm."

Dantonio said it also is important to stick to routine and not change the way any aspect of the program is run during the crisis. Kill said it's important for players to tune out what is said outside the program.

"The media and everybody gets involved with that," he said. "Inside closed doors you just go to work." Winning consistently has been a challenge week to week for everybody in the Big Ten, other than Penn State.

The Nittany Lions (8-1, 5-0 Big Ten) go into the Nebraska game with a two-game lead over Wisconsin and Ohio State in the Leaders Division. Michigan State (7-2, 4-1) is in control of the Legends Division, but Nebraska (7-2, 3-2), Iowa (6-3, 3-2) and Michigan (7-2, 3-2) are close behind.

The Hawkeyes, all but written off in the division after they lost to Minnesota two weeks ago, can make it to the first conference championship game if they win out.

"At the end of the day, there's so much talk about divisional play and conference races and all that stuff," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "The one thing that hasn't changed: the more you win, the better of you are; the more you lose, the worse off you are."

For Penn State to keep winning amid the uproar in State College, Pa., will be no small accomplishment. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said PSU players must lean on each other.

"Most coaches talk about understanding we're a football family and what happens in our family or to our family should stay within our family, as far as helping people through things and rallying around each other," Fitzgerald said. "There are those old `coachisms' out there about what won't kill you makes you stronger."


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